Monday, July 25, 2011

High Fidelity

When I made my new album, I used just the one little microphone.   I drove out to West Auckland to pick it up from the guy who had listed it on Trademe as 'slightly foxed but basically sweet,' and it served me well for the whole project.  I put it in front of things and hit 'record,' and the results sounded like what the things sounded like in real life, give or take.  I liked it, because it seemed to work - and, I realise now, I liked it because I was an ignorant wet-behind-the-ears hick and I didn't know any better.

Last week we started recording Reb Fountain's new album in at York Street Studios, which is where the grown-ups from the big cities go to make their records. And now - now I know better, by God. Here at York St, they don't use just one mic. I showed up at the studio on Monday morning and I walked into the tracking room to see not one, but sixteen microphones.  And, reader: that was just on the drum kit.  I don't want to belabour the point, but to an ignorant wet-behind-the-ears hick, that's a lot of mics. I was reminded of the rostrum at one of those triumphant press conferences that presidents of the United States of America give when their trained seals (at least I think that's what they said) hunt down public enemies in foreign countries, shoot them full of holes, and throw their bodies in the sea.  It is very tempting to suppose that this is how things should be done going forward.

The view from the violin recording station. The microphone in the upper right corner of the picture costs more than my car.  Just for your reference, other things that cost more than my car include: off-brand laptop computers, some kinds of pedigree dog, and vomiting eight times in a taxi.

You might be thinking that recording with this many microphones would go to my head. I mean, I only had about three pointing at my violin, but that's still two more that I actually own. Don't worry though, that's not what went to my head.  The thing that nearly did go to my head, but didn't quite, was how when you record with that many microphones, you need to have a really massive mixing desk.  The desk needs lots of knobs and sliders and a whole mess of outboard gear in racks, hooked up to big computers with flat screens and preamps with glowing vacuum tubes, and all this needs to be set up in a control room in front of a majestic triple-glazed window.  You know where I'm going with this, of course.  Yes, I can confirm that the control room at York St is way more like the bridge of a spaceship than any room I have ever been in in my entire life, and that is a significant milestone for me - but still that isn't what went to my head.

Simon flying the Battlestar Milllennium Enterprise

 Klingons on the starboard bow, etc.

What did go to my head, and this is something I fear I may never recover from, was Morton the Assistant Engineer. Like I said, on my album I used one microphone.  I also didn't have an engineer; I was the engineer.  And that was fine, because I can just about cope all by myself with the range of sonic options provided by one microphone.  Because I didn't have even an engineer, though, there was no room for an Assistant Engineer, and so I was blind and ignorant to the awesome possiblities afforded by this role.  An Assistant Engineer is an invaluable addition to the creative process, and frankly I don't know what I ever did without Morton.  As well as performing tasks like pointing microphones at things and patching preamps into mixers like a champion, Morton will stand next to the drum kit wearing a big pair of industrial earmuffs, ready to hand the drummer a different set of sticks half-way through a take so the sound can come out just right for the benefit of the sixteen microphones. He will run the protools console while Simon the boss engineer paces around the control room with his head cocked to one side, listening out for the perfect take.  He fetches, he carries, he puts instruments in their cases - the right way up! - and as if this wasn't enough, he is constantly making coffee for everyone.

Dylan Storey and Morton getting just the right guitar sound.  Two things to note about this photo:  1) Yes, Dylan has set up two separate Vox AC30s, just because he can. 2) Morton's head is way closer than a human head should ever be to a Fender Delux, and the fact that his ears aren't bleeding is evidence of his special powers.

Yes indeed, and not just coffee, either - really good coffee.  As a rule I don't usually care much about the quality of my coffee as long as it kicks like an angry donkey, but sometimes in my life a coffee will stand out from the crowd and I will take notice.  This week, thanks to Morton's expertise, that has been happening consistently. At first I was a bit worried about coming across like the greedy underemployed waster I am, out to get whatever free stuff I can lay my hands on, so I used my manners and just asked for simple long blacks.  I was careful to wait until he offered, and to say 'no thank you' at least one time in three. Then about half-way through day two, I realised that there was really no reason to hold back here - Morton is used to bona fide rock stars, who generally have no manners and are not afraid to make unreasonable demands.  I started getting him to concoct outlandish drinks with six inches of frothy chocolate milk piled on top of two or three shots of espresso, with an extra short black on the side for luck, and after that it got silly.  It was around then that I realised that this was going to my head, and it was awesome.  I stopped sleeping and developed a painful reflux condition, but I was preternatually alert, bang on the beat, and totally nailing my takes. The others were in pretty much the same condition, and so far the album sounds like what might happen if Orpheus had a baby with Thor and it got kidnapped by carnies who raised it up to  be a pirate.  So something seems to be working, and I'm pretty sure it's Morton's coffee.

Next time I make an album, I don't think I'll try to break into this flash studios for the grown-ups from the big city scene. I'll probably just stick with my ratty-tatty old hillbilly microphone and my temperamental laptop. Once you get the taste, though, there's no going back - I'll definitely be calling up York Street to see if I can borrow Morton the Assistant Engineer and his magical coffee machine.

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